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Songs for the MissingReview - Songs for the Missing
by Stewart O'Nan
Penguin, 2008
Review by Tony O'Brien
Nov 24th 2009 (Volume 13, Issue 48)

In 2005 Kim Larsen is eighteen years of age and anticipating escape to college from the stultifying smallness of her Midwest hometown of Kingsville, Ohio. Given the title of Stewart O'Nan's novel you know this dream is not going to be realized. What you don't know is how events will play out, and what will become of the characters. O'Nan gives a sly clue to the temper of the novel in his description of the sins of the Midwest: "flatness, emptiness, and a necessary acceptance of the familiar." Songs for the Missing, from its opening pages, holds the reader in the grip of an inexorable sameness, in which the region, and the inward looking temperament it seems to engender, are the major players, triumphing over individuals who might try to escape them. Kim goes missing, her car is found, but there is no sign of Kim. As the investigation progresses, or rather meanders, there are few clues, and although some unknown aspects of Kim's life come to light they lead nowhere. Eventually, despite the efforts of Kim's mother, the investigation goes cold, and life closes over for the Larsen family who seem to draw on new reserves of resignation to persevere. Kim's girlfriends Nina and Elise get on with their lives, as does JP, Kim's boyfriend of the time, the one who was only for the summer, and only because Kim couldn't manage to find someone else.

The question with this novel is whether the story, and the telling of it, rise above the sheer mundaneness of the lives it describes. You can certainly see why Kim would want to escape. Every business in Kingsville has a generic name, like "The Conoco", "Giant Eagle" and "Dairy Queen". The newspaper is the Star-Beacon. Kentucky Fried Chicken sounds exotic. Kim's father Ed is a realtor whose business has slackened even before the collapse of the subprime mortgage market. Mom Fran is a nurse at the local Emergency Department, a job which in the prevailing pessimism of Songs for the Missing provides an advance view of the likely misfortunes of her children. Younger sister Lindsay is a reclusive geek bordering on anorexia. Given the premise of the story, and the uninspiring ordinariness of the setting, readers need something to make for a satisfying read. I didn't find that something in this book. Kim simply goes missing, but the possibilities for drama are left unexploited. Other characters get older, but we don't really get closer to them. And there is no real resolution to the narrative; it is a simple matter of time passing. This would all be ok if it was merely a matter of authorial restraint, but I found many of the devices of the story unconvincing. There is a sense of O'Nan satisfying the need for narrative direction, but a reluctance to let the narrative be the story. And then there are those characters, Kim's parents, her sister, and her friends, who seem little changed at the end of the story.

Towards the end of the novel there's a glimpse of a world beyond the Midwest as Lindsay briefly considers taking flight to San Francisco, rather than home to her family. But this is a fleeting thought and, despite her misgivings, Lindsay is soon back in the familiar dullness of Kingsville, apparently maturing into the dutiful daughter to her aging parents. Songs for the Missing avoids the contrived resolution of most thrillers, and the gratuitous descriptions that pass for horror in other novels. Such discipline is very much to O'Nan's credit. The premise of this story would become melodrama or schmaltz at the keyboard of a lesser writer. I would just like, like Kim, to feel there was something more to that flat, empty and excrutiatingly familiar Midwest landscape, and something more to those lifeless, predictable characters.

 

© 2009 Tony O'Brien

 

Tony O'Brien is a short story writer, and lecturer in mental health nursing at the University of Auckland, New Zealand: a.obrien@auckland.ac.nz


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